Monday, November 10, 2003

THE CONTROVERSY OVER MISS AFGHANISTAN: You might be interested in what I have to say on Vida Samadzai, better known as Afghanistan. Ms. Samadazai will be the first person in more than 30 years to compete in the Miss Earth pageant next week. From burqa to bikini! "AMERICA 100, TALIBAN 0: This says it all," Glenn Reynolds enthusiastically proclaimed. But do I think this--an Afghan and Muslim woman to show off in a bikini in front of so many people--is a good thing? Yes and no. First off, a little bit of background on Islam in Afghanistan.

In Afghanistan, it didn't matter whether you were rich or poor, king or mujahedin, Marxist or tribe leader: Afghans of all ways of life are Muslims. I acknowledge that I'm biased on this position, but Islam in Afghanistan has been traditionally tolerant. Tolerant to other faiths and tolerant to other sects. Until 1992, Hindus, Sikhs and Jews played a significant role in the country's economy. (Hindus and Sikhs arrived in Afghanistan with the British as camp followers in the 19th century. Afghan Jewry dates back 2,700 years.) Islam has deep roots in Afghanistan because Sharia governed the legal process until 1925, after which King Amanullah introduced civil legal code. Around 80% of Afghans belong to the Hanafi school of though, the more liberal of the four schools. Shiite Islam is predominant amongst the Hazaras, a handful of Pashtun tribes, and a few Tajik clans.

Another moderating factor for Islam in Afghanistan was the popularity of Sufism, the trend of mystical Islam. The two main Sufi orders, the Naqshbandiyah and Qaderiyah, both played major role in the jihad against Soviets. The main Sufi resistance leader and the only remaining member of his family, Sibghatullah Mujaddedi, teamed up with King Zahir Shah to form the Mahaz-e-Mili, but were sidelined by the CIA and the Pakistani ISI. Instead, both chose for far extremists like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and later the Taliban.

Moderation was standard, even throughout the jihad, until 1992. After 1992, brutal civil war destroyed moderation and consensus. The war divided Islamic sects, ethnic groups and tribes in a way never experienced before. In 1995, Ahmed Shah Massoud massacred Hazaras in Kabul; Hazaras and Tajik were massacred likewise by the Taliban in 1997; and Taliban did so likewise to Uzbeks in 1998. No side was left unharmed. These events and years of oppressive rule by the Taliban have left Afghanistan as one of the most conservative Muslim societies in the world. In addition to the religious norm, there's also the cultural norm. One such example is purdah: the concept of keeping women shrouded from unrelated men.

So it shouldn't be a surprising that the minister of women's affairs, the Supreme Court and the Kabul religious scholars' committee condemned Ms. Samadazai. Today's Afghan society does disapprove of Ms. Samadazai, but society should not decide a woman's freedom. Ms. Samadazai can go to the beach in a bikini, but she should not represent Afghanistan at the Miss Earth pageant. At least, not for now. Afghanistan will be ready for things like feminism and Miss Earth pageants. Women walking in high heels and skirts are not unprecedented and Zohra Daoud was the last Miss Afghanistan in 1972. There is, however, a middle ground between freedom and things like Joe Millionaire or Average Joe. Right now, women in bikinis will just give ammunition to the conservatives and slow the empowerment of women in Afghanistan.

There's a religious and cultural minefield in Afghanistan. And it will take a while until that field is safe to travel over.

NOTE: The Supreme Court's attempt to charge her with a non-existing (or some vaguely-described) crime is totally ridiculous. They should spent their time condeming and charging murderers--more than enough of those in Afghanistan.

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